Monday, January 30, 2006

Memory is a tricky thing. Truth is not.Ask Oprah. Ask Doubleday. Don’t ask James “Faction” Frey. I’ve been having a hard time wrapping my brain around the concepts of “emotional truth,” “truthiness,” “altered details” and “faction,” all terms (some concocted) spawned by the embarrassing publishing scandal involving the selection of truth slayer James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” for Oprah Winfrey’s book club.

How do you know when someone is about to tell you a lie? I often ask my students. First, they stall, either repeating the question or throwing a question back. Or, they resort to fibbing, which of course, is not really lying.

Don’t believe me? Check out anyone in the witness box, at the table before a congressional panel, at the podium during a press conference or on Oprah’s confessional couch.

Today, a child might feel compelled to ask, “When is a lie not a lie?” Given this latest breach of honesty and integrity by Mr. Frey, his publisher and his de facto publicist, Oprah, a youngster might reason that stretching the truth is OK as long as you can get away with it. Or, when there are no witnesses or fact-checkers around. Or, if you’re someone “important” like an actor, an advocate or an author anointed by Oprah.

Unfortunately, Mr. Frey isn’t the first to be reminded the hard way about the time-honored values of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: accuracy, honesty, fairness and transparency.

Every good and faithful writer, regardless of genre, knows that he or she is only as good as a better editor and an even better fact-checker helps you to be. Even fiction writers must be careful to place their characters in an accurate historical context.

Literary license does not extend so far that it allows anyone to make whole cloth out of wholesale lies. Last semester, I spent an entire weekend researching the Tuskegee Airmen, the Air Force and black female pilots for a short story that had little to do with aviation.

No self-respecting writer wants to hear what the dying breed of skeptical, old-school journalists might say: “That story is so full of holes it looks like Swiss cheese.” While I was taking a class in memoir and essay writing last year at Johns Hopkins University, we engaged in a discussion about whether a person can honestly trust his or her memory. One classmate, loaded with all sorts of scientific studies and facts, said it was not possible to recall what happened years ago.

The older I get, it seems the harder it is for me to remember what happened yesterday. The important thing to remember, our instructor said, is that with memoirs, as with all other nonfiction writing, you have a sacred covenant with the reader to tell the truth as accurately as you remember it. But the key is to be transparent about your fuzziness if you cannot.

You are compelled to write warning phrases such as “as near as I can recall,” or “in my child’s mind,” or “as memory serves me now,” I did or didn’t do this or that. Otherwise, you’re writing fiction.

In Mr. Frey’s case, for example, he knew whether he went to a jail or a prison. Anyone who knows anything about the criminal justice system — or bothers to pick up a dictionary — knows the difference. And no one confuses a few hours in a jail with three months of incarceration.

Publishers, even in the rush to print the next best-seller, also would do well to remember their responsibility to readers to check facts and label fiction as such. Their failure to do so puts all writers at peril.

“It is not the policy or stance of this company that it does not matter whether a book sold as nonfiction is true,” is the Doubleday disclaimer now attached to Mr. Frey’s book on “A nonfiction book should adhere to the facts as the author knows them.”

The great writing coach at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Roy Peter Clark, appeared on Oprah last week when she made her mighty fine mea culpa and took Mr. Frey to task.

“I made a mistake, and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not what I believe,” Oprah told her audience, once again snatching fodder from her critics’ jaws.

Last month in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Clark wrote a humorist’s view of rating memoirs like the movies: AM for All Made Up; OW for Out of Whack (or Oprah Worthy); BS for Beyond Common Sense; SM (not S&M) for Selective Memory; and TG for Too Good To Be True. Seriously, Mr. Clark suggests there ought to be a summit to review and discuss the standards and expectations for memoirs. The wildly popular genre speaks to an American culture obsessed with self even when the story, as Oprah says, is one of self-redemption.

And it does not speak well of our culture that a writer must fabricate a tall tale that celebrates the worst in our contemporary nature to sell books to a shallow society that hates to read anything anymore.

Mr. Frey once told an interviewer that he wanted to be “the greatest literary writer” of his generation. He might start by brainstorming with the words honesty, integrity, responsibility and truth.

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